Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Marie loved the sun so much, she got skin cancers from it, which she perversely believed only the sun would help. Doctors periodically scraped or burned the cancerous cells off her face and arms, leaving her to hole up in her trailer for weeks listening to the radio until they healed. She was supposed to be grateful just to be alive. Instead, she felt like a continuous ooze. Whiskey helped some, but nothing could make her accept the white, patchy scars she was left with.
Marie was only fifty-seven, but five bad husbands (including one she’d married twice) had worn her out more than one good one might have. In 1959, after her sixth marriage didn’t work out because her husband said he was “revolted” by her skin, she sold the trailer and broke camp, feeling all she had to lose was the rut she was in. Marie went to Haiti looking for an oasis and stayed, never even missing her home in Florida or her roots in Georgia, where she’d been born. The way she saw it, the gods were trying to kill her off with carcinomas and whiskey in that trailer park in Davee, so she bade them adieu and left for the Caribbean.
Marie carried with her some clothes, all her many rings she’d received from her husbands, her great-grandmother’s antebellum syllabub set, and one keepsake from 1921, when she was a nineteen-year-old belle: a small, framed picture of herself taken in Grant Park, Atlanta, where she grew up sitting on laps. In the picture Marie was swagging a silky, black-fringed shawl between her long arms, gazing over her creamy, bare shoulder at the camera: flirting, winking, setting the course for the next forty years of her life. She would become a beauty queen, a seductress, a beguiler of men. That was who she’d felt compelled to be, even though she’d lacked the tyrannical brassiness of a true vixen. Then, gradually, her skin problems had begun. Now, at fifty-seven, she wasn’t so sure anymore who she was. She felt a change had come over her, as if somehow she had been dished up a whole new destiny.
She’d thought Haiti would be like Miami, but it was a place like nowhere else. She got vu jà dé in Haiti — the feeling that she’d never been there before. Haiti was like a child with the power to make time stand absolutely still — or dance with joie de vivre. Marie rode around in the back of a tap tap — a truck with seat boards added — becoming part of the roadside mélange of goats, people, taxis, and whatever. The tap taps were emblazoned with native art, graffiti, and proverbs. Marie’s favorite: “Hurrystance kill yo.”
It didn’t take but a couple of years in a shack with no electricity on top of a rocky hill for Marie to completely fan out and go native. Her Southern accent blended with the patois of her neighbors’ creole tongue, and she developed a fine understanding of pidgin. She enjoyed an automatic respect because of her enormous age — most Haitians didn’t live past fifty — and survived by her wits, a good garden, and the occasional sale of a ring.
In her third year in Haiti, Marie found a puny baby pig with a clubfoot that had been abandoned by its wild mother. She began fattening it up, and the little pig grew larger and larger. Finally, Marie announced that the pig was for sale for twenty-five dollars. Everyone laughed and said she was crazy. “No,” she said, “it’s worth every penny.” She had calculated exactly what she’d put into the pig and come up with a value of twenty-five dollars. Her neighbors were surprised when she got her asking price from a traveling soldier, who took the pig to his barracks to make grillot cochon avec banane pesse, pork chops with bananas.
With the money, Marie walked down from the rocky hill, took a tap tap into Port-au-Prince, and bought a red plastic radio. When she got home, her neighbors followed her into her hut, where she plunked the radio down in the middle of the table and turned it on. But she had forgotten it needed electricity, and, of course, there was none. She had been away from electricity for only three years but it was as if she had never known it at all. She was angry about forgetting, and her neighbors laughed at her. She thought of taking the radio back, but then she saw that electricity was coming her way; the poles and lines were getting closer to her hut. So in the end, she decided to wait for electricity to get to her house.
Meanwhile, she had plenty to do. She fed people out of her kitchen and sold cigarettes one at a time to raise money to feed the dogs. In Haiti there were too many dogs for the ticks. Always the three huge, mongrel dogs she had acquired had to be fed. People were easy: rice, beans, yams, palmetto-shoot salad. But there wasn’t much packaged or canned dog food in Haiti, and anyway Marie couldn’t afford it. So every day Marie had to scavenge for scraps of food she could mix with cornmeal and boil down into mush to feed the dogs. One of the animals was named Ja La, which meant “my eyes see.” Another was named Hippocrit, and the third was Frog. They gobbled down the food as fast as Marie could put it in the bowls, and knocked her on the ground for her trouble.
Frer Ma, her neighbor, always gathered wood for Marie’s cooking fire, although Marie made it clear she had no further interest in him. He was a silent man. Marie had been married to one of those, and he had turned out to be a hitter. Now no man interested Marie, only the dogs and how to feed them.
When Marie got carcinomas she used a branding iron with a triple dot on it to burn them off. It left white scars that looked like cloverleafs all over her tan, leathery skin. She could almost pass for a mulatto. Marie didn’t care how she looked. She didn’t even have a mirror to look into. She wore the bright cottons of the island and drank sugar-cane wine she had learned to make herself.
Marie began to believe, like her neighbors, that dying was just gliding into another life, or into heaven. She would go to sleep hoping to die so she could get out of feeding the dogs. After five years, her fondest wish was to be relieved of the task, but there was no way to stop. She was afraid they would starve and become violent. And there was no one else to do it. It was all Frer Ma could do to gather enough wood and build the fire. He, too, was a captive of these dogs.
One night Marie finally did manage to die and go to heaven. But when she got there, the dogs were there, too, demanding to be fed. Frer Ma was also there, so she told him, “Get me some wood.”
Frer Ma said, “Marie, you really think I find dry wood in heaven?”
And Marie said, “Yes, of course. The dogs are here, aren’t they?”
But Marie woke up and found she had only been dreaming. “Oh well, I’m still in this life,” she said with a sigh, and went outside to find road kill for the dogs.
But the dogs were gone, and so was Frer Ma; no one had seen them. Marie told all her neighbors about the dream and they started a search. After a day of looking all over, Frer Ma and the dogs were found dead in the bush behind Frer Ma’s house, as if they were hiding. Their stiff, empty shells seemed absurdly heavy, and the smell clinging to them made everyone hold their breath.
The police thought the dogs had been poisoned by their food, and that Frer Ma must have eaten the dogs’ food, too. Marie got the blame. Everyone said she had seen them in heaven in her dream because she had put them there, but no poison could be found in her house. Marie didn’t know how she could have poisoned them.
The coroner found an oleander flower inside Ja La’s mouth. Then he cut open the bellies of Hippocrit and Frog and found an oleander flower in each. Everyone, even dogs, knew that the oleander was poisonous, so why had they eaten it? Frer Ma had no flower in him.
Marie was not arrested because the coroner believed Frer Ma had fed the dogs the poisonous flowers and then fallen dead himself just from handling them. “A rare case,” he called it. On the death certificate he wrote, “Frer Ma died from unintentional immolation caused by aromatic oleander.” Marie rolled those words over on her tongue, but her neighbors walked away shaking their heads. Her neighbors’ doubt disturbed her. She felt as if she were being worn down, little by little, by drops of water. But at least she was finally relieved of feeding the dogs.
Finally, Marie decided that Frer Ma had gone to heaven with her to gather wood and help her feed the dogs and somehow had not gotten back. Every night when she went to bed she thanked Frer Ma for taking the dogs off her hands. “Doux-doux,” she breathed with relief — sweet-sweet. And then she went to sleep. But in her dreams she toiled on, stirring and stirring great pots of dog food and watching Frer Ma’s resolute wood gathering. When she was awake, her neighbors no longer spoke to her, nor bought her food and cigarettes. She felt invisible.
Then one day the power lines reached Marie’s hilltop, and she came alive. For a fee, a wire could be run from the towering pole to her house. She sold a ring to raise the money and her neighbors watched as electricity came to Marie’s hut. Then she sold the last of her rings and bought gallons of Madeira, quarts of cream, dozens of lemons, and sacks of brown sugar: all she would need for making syllabub. Marie planned a big celebration for her neighbors, especially the ones who thought she was a murderer. Everyone hovered close by, watching Marie lug the groceries up the hill to her hut.
Besides her neighbors, people she had never seen before — workers from the coffee-sorting plant — came to witness the ceremony of plugging in the radio and playing it for the first time. They crowded inside and all around Marie’s little hut. On the table beside the red plastic radio were two pictures. One was the picture of Marie in her vamp shawl back when she was a coquette. The other was a picture of Frer Ma that Marie had drawn from memory and fashioned a colorful, papier-mâché frame around.
Then there came a hushed silence, and all eyes were on Marie as she plugged the radio in and rolled the knob to ON. There was nothing for a second, then a loud blare of static. The crowd stepped back. Marie rotated the dial slowly, the way she remembered doing in her little trailer in Davee.
“I want more even, encore, plus extra, beaucoup coffee, cane, and cocoa,” the radio squawked. It was Duvalier hollering from Port-au-Prince. Behind the voice was the sound of howling dogs. Marie remembered that Frer Ma had once told her, “Even dogs are obeyed in office.” She quickly changed the station, cutting Papa Doc off cold, and all her neighbors cheered, their fists in the air. Another voice: “From now until this same time tomorrow, the weather will be warm.” Everyone shook their heads. “No talky-talky,” they said, all in agreement.
Marie squeezed the dial and turned it minutely, trying to catch the airwaves from Jamaica, where music flowed freely. A sudden blast of sound vibrated the hut and rolled out over the hill. Drum beats caused everyone to sway and jump and dance without thinking. She turned the boinka-boinka reggae rhythms way up loud until they grew thick on the wind.
Marie whisked all the syllabub ingredients together, giving each of her neighbors a turn at beating the doux-doux custard into liquid clouds. Then she spooned the delicious froth out into her great-grandmother’s old-fashioned cups, beating in more and more heavenly air so that the syllabub never ran out. Everyone danced into the night under the glow of moonbeams, full of froth and music, grateful to be alive.
Mary Torre Kelly